OK folks. I’m going to make the same promise to you that I made to Halena Kays, director of the upcoming production of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents at the Neo-Futurists: I want my experience with this show to be helpful, and I don’t want to get in your head. I want to give advice that anyone directing this show would be grateful to have, but not opinions that give you the yips and mess with your mojo.
So…disclaimer out of the way…I want to talk about transitions. Two things are very important: brevity and music. The first is kind of obvious, the latter is not.
Rehearse the transitions. Have whole rehearsals dedicated to transitions. Make them fast; make them efficient; systematically remove every millisecond of doubt in your performers so they don’t waste time looking up at the projector to see which president comes next.
That stuff adds up. In a big way.
Do this and you will shave 10 minutes from the show. Not to mention, watching performers move like a well-oiled machine between short plays that represent 223 years…is awesome.
Transition music should reflect an evolution toward the present.
I slaved over the transition music for the original production. I think I spent about 60 hours putting all the songs together–and this was back in 2002 when it wasn’t nearly as easy to find stuff online. I was obsessed with making sure that every single song that preceded a president’s play had originated during that president’s term.
This was the kind of meticulous, historical geekery that made the rest of our team either roll their eyes or say nothing as I alone congratulated myself for completing my project.
Weeks later, the transition music was mentioned in most–if not all-the reviews.
Am I an awesome sound designer? Nope. Let me explain why I think this was so important…
I don’t believe you can write a successful play without something that resembles a central conflict. In the case of a traditional play, we learn what a character wants in the first five minutes and then we hope like mad he or she gets it by the end.
In a play like Presidents, you’re establishing a vocabulary in the first five minutes: after a little confusion, the audience learns how long these plays are, that they happen in chronological order, what the direct-quote light means, the coat, the state blocks, the scale…the mechanics of how the stories will be told. That’s when they understand how the show will end–an often overlooked but critically important understanding an audience must achieve quickly in experimental theatre.
In this case, the ending isn’t “boy-gets-girl,” but “we’ve finally arrived at the present!” In a traditional play, an audience knows that a central character will either get what she wants or get what she needs…the enjoyment is in the mystery of how the details unfold. In 44 Plays…after the first five minutes, the audience knows these now-familiar story-telling devices will carry us to Barack Obama…and the enjoyment is in the mystery of the details that lie between and the eventual treatment of the present.
So…in a purely structural sense…the central tension of the show is the knowledge that we’re slowly inching toward the America the audience occupies.
When we hear the music evolve, it reflects this tension.
At the invention of rock-and-roll, before the Eisenhower play, the audience becomes overtly aware of the role music is playing in this tale. It also helps signal when we’ve entered the lifetimes of audience members. “I remember that song from my youth” accompanies “that was the first President I was aware of.” Then we shift from a tale purely about our country, to one that’s also about the history of our own lives demarcated by Presidents and pop music.
So there you have it. My two cents.